How Long Does a Coat of Oil Paint Need to Dry Before Applying Another?

Close-up of an oil painting
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One of the distinctions of oil paint is that it takes longer to dry than other media, which makes it very malleable, enabling an artist to work on it wet over a longer period of time than most water-based paints and makes blending colors very easy. Unlike acrylics and watercolor, oil paint does not dry by evaporation of water, causing the paint to harden, but rather, by oxidation, hardening as it absorbs oxygen from the air, which is a slower process than evaporation.

Therefore, you can add layers of paint all day while it is still wet and blend them in with existing layers if you want.

If, however, you want the top layer hardened you need to wait longer. How long it takes for a coat or layer of oil paint to dry to the stage where you can apply another coat depends on several factors, including the temperature and humidity, the color paint you're using, the type of oil, and specific techniques you're using. Oil paints can be used wet on wet, thick on thin, or wet on dry. If you're painting glazes, you need to wait until the paint is thoroughly dry, so think at least a day rather than an hour.

Factors That Affect How Quickly a Coat of Oil Paint Dries

Paint will dry faster in a well-lit, hot, dry environment. Test the paint to see if it's dry with your finger. If it's too sticky, you need to leave it for longer. If you don't give it enough time you will find the new layer you are putting on will be pulling off or mixing with the previous layer.

(No harm done -- you can always go over it or scrape it off, oils are forgiving that way.)

The drying time also depends on the oil paint colors you're using (some dry faster than others -- see Which Oil Paint Colors Have the Fastest Drying Times?) and how much (if any) drying oil or solvent you're using.

For example, titanium white and ivory black tend to dry more slowly, whereas lead white and burnt umber harden more quickly. Paints made from pigments ground with linseed oil tend to harden more quickly than those made with oils like safflower and poppy. 

If you find that you're continually getting frustrated waiting for oil paint to dry, try having various paintings in progress simultaneously so you can move back and forth between them. Or paint those sections of a painting that you're happy doing wet-on-wet (such as a sky or blended background). Or consider switching to acrylics which dry far more rapidly.

Updated by Lisa Marder 10/21/16